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Analysis: Big Money, Big Names Mark HD-108 Race

Morgan Meyer and Chart Westcott are battling for an open Dallas County House seat in an urban Republican district where the pockets are deep, the endorsers are famous and the Tea Party is relatively weak.

UNIVERSITY PARK — The Republican House district that sits smack dab in the middle of the Dallas County map is up for grabs in a May 27 runoff where, oddly, the run to the right that marks other Texas contests has been relatively muted.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, is running for attorney general, leaving the House District 108 seat open for the first time since 2002. The first round drew three Republicans, and one, Morgan Meyer, came within about 400 votes of an outright victory. But that was back in March, and Meyer is now facing Chart Westcott in the runoff. Early voting starts next week, and the winner will face Democrat Leigh Bailey, who ran unopposed in her primary.

The district is unusual, both urban and Republican. It includes the Park Cities and part of Preston Hollow — some of the wealthiest real estate in Texas — along with downtown Dallas, Southern Methodist University and a chunk of East Dallas that runs from the “M streets” down to Swiss Avenue. What was once a swing district, where Branch had to worry about Democrats as well as his fellow Republicans, is now reliably Republican, having strongly favored that party’s statewide candidates in both 2010 and 2012.

Branch, who will be on the same runoff ballot in the race for attorney general, has not endorsed either candidate, staying out of a contest that could temporarily divide his old base of support.

Meyer bested Westcott by 17 percentage points in March, but the star-studded endorsement lists on the candidates’ websites make it clear why Branch is too busy to take sides. Meyer’s list includes former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ross Perot Jr., Tom Luce, Darrell Jordan and Griffin Perry. Westcott’s includes former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, realtor Allie Beth Allman, George Bayoud and banker Gerald Ford. That’s a tiny sample: Both lists go on and on.

The pockets are as deep as the endorsement lists, especially on the Westcott side. The most recent campaign finance reports cover the period before the primary, showing that Westcott spent $537,911 in the weeks before that race and had $194,782 in his accounts with about a week to go. Meyer’s numbers were substantial, but smaller: $83,990 spent and $173,061 on hand. The next deadline for reports is next week.

Westcott made one change after the first round, hiring Matt Langston to run his campaign. Langston managed Donald Huffines’ successful primary challenge of state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. Meyers’ campaign is run by Allyn Co., which also managed Carona’s effort.

In addition to all the money in the contest, the candidates also talk about the time they have spent knocking on doors. Dallas is an expensive television market, and fewer than 13,000 people voted in the first round; knocking on doors and sending mailers is a cheaper way to contact voters.

“The ground game is what got me to 47 percent in the primary,” Meyer said. “Walking is really important.”

Meyer touches on issues, but doesn’t volunteer any hot-button positions when asked about the campaign. His sales pitch is his family, with two kids in public schools, and his 15 years as a commercial litigator (now with Bracewell & Giuliani). “Who has the background and experience?” he asks. “I am that guy. I worry about the schools. ... It’s the personal experience.”

Both candidates say the district is family-centered, with public education the top issue for voters, followed by standards like transportation and taxes.

This is not a Tea Party hotbed like some of the districts around it, but it is conservative. Westcott runs down the numbers in the 2012 U.S. Senate race as an example: Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert finished first in the district, followed by David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz (statewide, Dewhurst finished first and Cruz finished second). But in the runoff, Cruz beat Dewhurst in the district by 4 points.

Westcott wants to deport undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., says he prefers diverting sales taxes on motor vehicles to finance transportation rather than toll roads, and wants to end the “Robin Hood” mechanism for financing public schools that he says has drained the Highland Park ISD of money and sent it to poorer districts in the state.

“I’m going for those conservative voters,” he says. “There are serious differences between us, and I don’t want you to miss those. There is a school of thought that wants to make us more moderate as a party, and I think that’s a mistake.” 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/05/14/big-money-big-names-retail-politics-mark-dallas-ra/.

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